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The Climate Emergency

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:46 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 4:46 pm, 17th October 2019

We have had a thoughtful, well-informed debate, with some excellent contributions, but sadly the Government are in denial about the most important issue of our time. Warm words from Ministers do not change the fact that this Queen’s Speech included only six words about climate change, thrown in as an afterthought. Earlier this year Parliament declared a climate emergency, but the Conservative Party again went missing, failing to back Labour’s motion committing the Government to act in the face of an impending catastrophe. The policies of this Government to delay action on climate change are condemning our children and grandchildren to a more dangerous and insecure world.

Transport is the UK’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the worst-performing sector when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. What is more, there has been a rising trend in emissions in recent years. A Labour Government will, from day one, align the priorities of the Department for Transport with our commitment to tackle climate change.

Under my leadership, I want the Department for Transport to set a carbon budget that is consistent with the aspirations of the Paris agreement. We will reallocate departmental spending to achieve the changes required. What that means in practice for policy development is a shift away from modes of transport that are dependent on fossil fuels and towards sustainable modes.

The failure to tackle transport emissions is the result of deliberate Conservative Government policy, which encourages traffic growth through an ever-expanding multibillion-pound programme of road building. At the same time, public transport subsidies have been slashed. To reverse that trend, Labour will oversee a radical shift of resources towards public transport, as well as cycling and walking, along with an acceleration of the transition from diesel and petrol to electric vehicles.

Even since Parliament declared a climate emergency, the Government have continued to boast that they are investing more than ever in England’s major road network. That colossal road-building programme is environmentally unsustainable, and will drive traffic growth and create congestion, failing even on its own terms. Worse still, the Government plan to spend all the vehicle excise duty revenue—almost £30 billion—on building new motorways. Labour would instead hypothecate that money into a sustainable transport fund to improve buses, rail, cycling and walking.

More journeys are made on buses than on any other form of public transport, but colossal cuts to bus budgets have caused a 10% decline in patronage in England outside London, leading to over 3,000 routes being cut and withdrawn. That attack on bus services is leaving people and communities isolated and increasing car dependency. So we will also give funds for free travel for under-25s to local authorities that bring local services under public control or ownership—[Interruption.] I am glad you like it. That will also transform services and deliver significant environmental benefits.

Labour’s policy of nationalising the railways is also central to our plans to boost public transport use. Tinkering around the edges of a broken system will not suffice. Public ownership will allow for improvements to increase patronage which are frustrated under privatisation, such as reforming fares and ticketing to create a simple, easy-to-use system that can be integrated with other modes of transport. We would commit ourselves to a long-term vision of upgrades and improvements, including major projects such as a £39 billion Crossrail for the north to connect and transform the economies of the north of England. Labour has said that it would cap fares at inflation, but I believe that we can and should go further.

The role that cycling and walking can play in modal shift is underappreciated. Indeed, under Government plans, spending on cycling in England outside London is set to fall to 37p per person per head in 2020-21. Were the UK to achieve the same cycling culture and levels of infrastructure as the Netherlands, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from car travel by as much as a third. There must be significant investment in cycling infrastructure to develop dense, continuous networks of cycle paths that are physically separated from traffic. That will include building cycling and pedestrian bridges or tunnels, because cycling should be for the many, not just the brave. Cycling and walking ought to be a priority at every level of government, which would mean an end to developments planned around car use to the exclusion of sustainable transport. The Labour party understands the strategic importance of cycling in driving down emissions.

Reducing the number of car journeys by improving public and sustainable transport is the priority, but research shows that that alone is not enough to meet emission targets. No country in the world has a less ambitious date for the phasing out of vehicles with internal combustion engines than the UK; 2040 is too late, so Labour will work towards a 2030 phase-out, and will give industry the investment and support that it needs to make that transition. Those plans and future announcements are central to Labour’s green industrial revolution.

I voted against the expansion of Heathrow because it would ignore the climate crisis. When anti-expansion campaigners challenged the plans in the High Court, they argued that the Government had acted unlawfully by not considering the Paris climate change agreement. However, the court ruled that while the Government had ratified the agreement, it did not form part of UK law. It is a disgrace that the Government signed it while forcing through policies that they knew would cause the UK to miss its targets.

The Government are condemning the country to economic stagnation and a climate crisis. The Labour party has a plan to deliver a green industrial revolution to address the climate crisis and revitalise our economy. By improving public transport, investing in active travel and decarbonising road transport, Labour will create transport networks that are sustainable, encourage economic development and create a more socially just society. I am tremendously proud of the way in which the Labour movement is rising to the challenge of the climate crisis, in contrast to the defeatism of the Conservative party, and I cannot wait to deliver our programme in government.